Written evidence submitted by Dogs Trust (COR0064)
Dogs Trust is the UK’s largest dog welfare charity. We have twenty rehoming centres across the UK, through which we care for approximately 15,000 dogs each year. We invest substantial resources in information services, community outreach programmes, and education on responsible dog ownership. Since Dogs Trust was founded in 1891 (formerly National Canine Defence League) we have always campaigned on dog welfare issues and played an instrumental role in the introduction of the Animal Welfare Act 2006.
Dogs Trust Freedom Project supports people fleeing domestic abuse by offering a free and confidential pet fostering service, as well as raising awareness of how pets can often be used as a tool by perpetrators to abuse their partner/family member.
Dogs Trust recognises that self-isolation and social distancing will mean that survivors experiencing domestic abuse are now likely to be more isolated in a home with their perpetrator. It also means that survivors may have reduced possibilities to safely access vital helplines, specialist domestic abuse services, and the support that they need to leave and get to safety.
3. At least 16 suspected domestic abuse killings have been identified by Counting Dead Women since the Covid-19 lockdown restrictions were implemented[i], which has trebled compared to the the average rate for the time of year and compared to previous years’ averages[ii].
4. Dogs Trust Freedom Project recognises how important it is for survivors to be able to access help for their pets during this time. Pets are often considered as members of the family, for this reason we cannot underestimate the strength of the human-canine animal bond. We are aware that survivors will often delay fleeing domestic abuse because they do not wish to leave their pet behind, therefore we are continuing to run our specialist pet fostering service for those escaping domestic abuse at this time to ensure this barrier to escape is removed.
5. Dogs Trust Freedom Project has seen a reduction in referrals over the past few weeks, which we believe may be due to the more limited options for survivors to access help, as well as have the opportunity to leave safely if they are at home with the perpetrator. However, we have seen in the referrals that we are receiving, the majority are survivors who are at ‘high risk’ of harm and need an urgent response. This includes cases we have been made aware of where the perpetrator has set fire to the home, as well as cases where survivors have been forced to stay at home with very violent perpetrators without a safe means of escape.
6. Additionally, the Freedom Project has also seen a significant increase to our website page ‘Accessing our Service’[iii], with a 319% increase in visits, compared to the same period in 2019.
7. We are therefore continuing to monitor the situation and our referral data closely, to ensure we offer the most practical and safe support during this time and are preparing to be able to meet the possible increase in demand over the coming months.
8. Measures or proposals to help support victims of domestic abuse and child abuse at this time
Dogs Trust recognised that there was emerging evidence of the links between pet abuse and abuse to people, but also noted the lack of available pet fostering services in the UK. As many refuges are unable to accept pets, Dogs Trust created the Freedom Project in 2004 to support people who need to flee their home but are unable to take their pets with them. Whilst there are valid reasons why refuges may not be able to accept pets, it means that owning a pet can often be a barrier for someone needing to flee their home and access refuge/emergency accommodation. A recent survey that we carried out found that more than nine in 10 domestic abuse professionals (95%) said that they are aware of cases where survivors will not leave their home without knowing their pet would also be safe[iv].
9. The Freedom Project currently runs in Greater London & Home Counties, North of England and Scotland, and has fostered over 1,700 pets since the service launched in 2004. Through our work, we have become increasingly aware that pets can often be used as a tool by the perpetrator, with many perpetrators using threats to the animal to coerce and control their partner. This also includes economic abuse, such as perpetrators restricting a survivors’ ability to provide veterinary care for their pet and deliberately not feeding a family pet to cause distress. This restriction of the survivors’ ability to care for their pet is another tool used by perpetrators to attempt to maintain power and control over them.
10. The Freedom Project is continuing to run this vital service throughout the current Covid-19 period, with additional measures in place to protect our service users, volunteers, staff and dogs.
11. Dogs Trust is also a member of The Links Group, a multi-agency group focused on raising awareness of the links between violence to people and violence to animals. The veterinary profession is key to identifying non-accidental injury (NAI) in pets; the Links Group has recently had a letter published in the Veterinary Record, the journal of the British Veterinary Association, alerting veterinary surgeons to be vigilant for cases of NAI if they are presented with cases of traumatic injury. This is particularly pertinent, both in terms of the possibility of further family abuse, and also as vets are currently not undertaking routine clinical work.
12. Measures or proposals to reduce or avert domestic abuse and child abuse at this time
Dogs Trust is continuing to keep the Freedom Project service open throughout this time, to provide a lifeline for survivors of domestic abuse needing to flee and access safe accommodation. The service is currently working closely with key agencies within their regions to raise awareness of the availability of the service and to ensure that survivors who own pets are also supported into arranging temporary care for their pets.
13. Dogs Trust Freedom Project has also worked with Women’s Aid to be included in their Safety Guidance for Survivors during Covid-19 – to ensure survivors and support workers are aware that the service is still available during this time.
14. The effectiveness of Government advice, co-ordination and support for responders and service providers
As a member of Women’s Aid, and a service which works very closely with refuges and specialist support services, we are concerned about the impact of Covid-19 on these vital services and the possible increase in demand following the lockdown restrictions being lifted.
15. Over the last few weeks, we are aware of some domestic abuse services having to temporarily suspend their services, as well as refuges needing to temporarily close. These are essential, life-saving services that will need adequate funding to be able to continue their work during these difficult times.
16. A recent survey[v] from Women’s Aid found that, out of 45 local domestic abuse services surveyed:
17. Dogs Trust strongly recommends that refuges and domestic abuse services receive additional funding to ensure that they can carry on their life-saving work. Women’s Aid has called for an emergency cash injection of at least £48.2 million, to cover the costs over the next six months, to ensure local services are able to continue running and meeting the needs of survivors in their areas[vi]. The expertise of this sector is now more needed than ever, given the increase of domestic abuse related homicides during this period, and the expected increase of demand on these services in the coming weeks and months.
18. Dogs Trust Freedom Project is currently supporting over 80 families who have their pets cared for under the scheme. During the fostering period, staff members stay in regular touch with these survivors and receive updates on their progression with securing new housing, until they are able to be safely rehoused and then reunited with their pets.
19. We have found that many survivors are currently reporting that their housing applications and bidding processes for housing have been suspended, causing further distress and resulting in the need to stay in temporary accommodation for longer periods. Whilst the Freedom Project will be making extensions to the usual maximum fostering period of 6-9 months for those who have been impacted by housing delays due to Covid-19, we are also concerned about the further impact that delays to survivors accessing suitable new accommodation will have on refuges, who may already be at reduced capacity.
20. Dogs Trust therefore recommends that suitable and sufficient housing, both emergency housing at specialist refuges, as well as temporary housing and long-term housing solutions are all reviewed and considered as a priority for survivors of domestic abuse during the Covid-19 period and beyond.